Follow Your Gut in Street Photography

NYC, 2016 #ricohgr
NYC, 2016 #ricohgr

Do you remember when you took multiple choice tests in school, and you weren’t 100% sure what the answer was? You might have had a gut feeling that one of the answers of the right. However you thought more “analytically” about the question, and instead of following your gut, you followed what your brain told you was “right”.

Then you get the test back, and damn it– you should have followed your gut.

Gut vs brain

NYC, 2016 #ricohgr
NYC, 2016 #ricohgr

In the west, we are always told to follow our brain. We are taught to write todo lists, to write “pro” vs “con” lists, and to think “analytically”, to become more “efficient”, “optimized”, and to be more “productive”.

I’ve recently been learning a lot about Paul Rand, one of the greatest designers who designed some of the most iconic logos (Westinghouse, IBM, NeXT, and many others). When he talked about his “design process”–he said that he followed his intuition and instincts, rather than following formulas and pre-planned logic.

Miyazaki is another director I have great admiration for (he runs Studio Ghibli which directed “Spirited Away”, “Grave of the fireflies”, “Our neighbor Totoro). I watched a documentary about him on Netflix, and whenever he starts a story, he isn’t quite sure where it is heading, and doesn’t even know how it will end. His technique; he follows his gut, and “goes with the flow”.

Similarly, whenever I write, I’m not 100% sure where I’m headed. Also when I’m shooting on the streets, I have no idea what I will encounter, where I will end up shooting, and whether or not I will make a good photo or not.

Even when I’m editing (choosing my best shots), I’m not always sure which of my shots are my “best” shots. I use a combination of asking friends and Cindy for their opinion, but most of it is following my gut– does the photo pound you in the heart, and burn itself into your mind?

Follow your gut in street photography

NYC, 2016 #ricohgr
NYC, 2016 #ricohgr

Anders Petersen, Daido Moriyama, Jacob Aue Sobol, Josh White, and Junku Nishimura are some photographers I know who follow their gut when they’re shooting on the streets. They trust their sense of smell (just like any good dog) and they let the streets lead them to where they need to go. When they take a photo, they’re not sure why they took a photo– they just shoot it because they follow their gut.

When it comes to making good compositions in the streets — you’re not going to see red leading lines or triangles. You need to learn how to build an intuition or a gut feeling how to shoot a scene, how to frame it, and shoot whatever interests you.

Shut up, brain

Berkeley, 2015 #trix1600
Berkeley, 2015 #trix1600

Have you ever been on the streets and you saw a scene that you thought was interesting, yet your brain told you, “No, don’t take that photo. It will be boring and cliche” and you end up not taking the photo. Isn’t that kind of a crappy feeling?

What I recommend is to ignore what the “rational” part of your brain tells you. Just take the photo anyways, you can always decide to get rid of it later.

How to balance your gut intuition vs “rationality”

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016

I think one of the big challenges we face as photographers is how to balance both our gut feelings and our rational mind.

For me, I have ended up giving more and more credence and trust into my gut feelings. However I still ask others for their opinions (whether a certain photo is good or not), and I use that to make a final judgement on how I feel about my work.

So this is my workflow:

  1. Ask myself whether I like the photo.
  2. If I like the photo, ask 2 of my friends (that I trust) whether they like the shot or not.
  3. Use their feedback to make a “rational” decision whether I will “keep” or “ditch” the shot.
  4. If I’m really unsure how I feel about a photo, I will let it sit in a folder and let the photo “marinate” for a few days, a few weeks, or even a few years before making a final decision.

Use your inner-genius

NYC, 2016 #ricohgr
NYC, 2016 #ricohgr

One of the books I’m reading is “Zen mind, beginner mind”. Apparently Steve Jobs was really inspired by the book, and used principles from the book (as well as his other inspirations from Zen and Buddhism) to guide his design principles.

One of the big things that I learned was to follow your own intuition, and to ignore “market research” or what others thought.

Every big innovation that happens will be unfamiliar, and seem a bit crazy. When engineers first started to work on a “digital camera”, film photographers thought they were crazy. When Steve Jobs designed the iPhone to not have a keyboard, people thought he was crazy. When Galileo suggested that the earth was not the center of the universe, the church and “modern” society thought he was crazy.

Life is short. Take risks. Follow your own gut and intuition. We are hard-wired to be “risk averse”– meaning we prefer to not take risks, and we prefer the sure bet. Growing up Asian-American, I was not encouraged to be an entrepreneur (certainly not to pursue “street photography” full-time). I was encouraged by my loving parents to choose a “safe” career like becoming a doctor or lawyer.

How to follow your gut more

Prague, 2015
Prague, 2015

Let’s say you have an idea for a photo project, yet everyone you pitch the idea to thinks it is a horrible idea. I say just go for it. You really have no downside.

Let’s say you work on this project and it ends up not working out. Big deal– it’s not like you won’t be able to put food on the dinner table. And I’m certain that you will learn from your mistakes, which will help you for future projects.

Also when you’re shooting on the streets, and your gut tells you to take a photo. Just take the damn photo. Worst case scenario: it won’t be a good photo. Best case scenario: it will be a photo you’re proud of.

You don’t have the time to be slow and analytical when you’re shooting on the streets. You need to be fast, quick, and react to what you see. Like a good boxer or an elegant ballerina, you need to learn how to stay on your toes.

How to follow your guts when shooting street photography

NYC, 2016 #ricohgr
NYC, 2016 #ricohgr

How do you build up your sense of intuition when shooting in the streets? Some ideas:

  1. Take a break from social media: I personally found the problem of spending too much time on social media is that I was a slave to the opinion of others. Rather than asking myself, “Do I like my own photo?” I would constantly ask the masses what they thought of my work. This made me unable to follow my gut intuition whether I liked my photos or not.
  2. Shut off your brain when shooting in the streets: when you’re shooting in the streets, be like a dog that follows his nose. Or like a pigeon that simply follows or is attracted to anything shiny. Don’t over-think your shooting process, just take photos of whatever you find interesting.
  3. Turn off your phone: when my phone is on, I can’t concentrate. When your phone is off, you can go into the “zone” when you’re shooting in the streets– you won’t be distracted by music, by text messages, or emails. You put your entire being and focus on shooting.
  4. Don’t force it: remember, street photography is supposed to be fun. Don’t force yourself to shoot street photography if you don’t want to. Your life is stressful enough; why add any more “obligations” to your life?
  5. Embrace “beginners mind”: do you remember when you were a newbie to photography– how free, curious, and child-like your mind was? You simply made photos for the joy of it, rather than worrying about how many “likes” you would get on social media. Every time you hit the streets, imagine like you are seeing the streets for the first time (even if you’re shooting in a familiar area in your “boring” hometown).

Never stop cultivating your creative mind

NYC, 2016 #cindyproject
NYC, 2016 #cindyproject

You have an inner genius that cannot be “explained” in rational terms. You have a wealth of experiences, inspirations, and a creative vision. All the movies you’ve watched, the comic books you read as a kid, the music you listen to, your education in school, the museums and exhibitions you’ve seen– all of this informs your intuition.

Never stop feeding your creative mind. Keep consuming art which inspires you. Whether that be interacting conversations, paintings, musical pieces, theater, or dance.

Keep blending your inspirations together, and weave a beautiful tapestry in your mind– and make images that will be patches in your photographic quilt.

You got this.


1pm, Tuesday, March 29, 2016. At Philz coffee in Berkeley, happy to be back home after two weeks in NYC. Thank you again always for the support, I couldn’t have ever made it this far without you. Special thanks to Fan for the “Gregory coffee” espresso beans which pumped me up today.

Keep following your gut

NYC, 2016
NYC, 2016
  1. Follow Your Intuition
  2. Notice
  3. Listen
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